Etruscan Ceramic Black-Figure Krater
Culture: Etruscan, Etruscan
Period: Second half of the 6th Century B.C.
Dimensions: 26.3 cm
Price: CHF 34000
Sotheby’s London December 14 1995, lot. 260.
The vase is whole, but has been reassembled; small repairs are visible. Despite its unusual appearance, it is decorated in the Greek black-figure technique: the red areas and the blackened surface on the background metopes would be due to a problem that occurred during the firing process.
The decoration is simple and essential from a stylistic point of view, but it is also very elaborate in terms of iconography: even if there is a large number of elements, the meanings of which remain obscure to us, all the subjects certainly refer to the funerary world, and this vase would have been designed to accompany a deceased in his tomb. The column krater is an uncommon shape, rarely used by Etruscan potters during the black-figure period: besides, the semicircular handles are surmounted by a small, bearded male mask equipped with horns and bovine ears. Its iconography reproduces that of Achelous, the god (and the name) of the largest Greek river, which flows in the northeast of the Peloponnese (Aetolia): in Etruria, his face becomes a favorite subject for terracotta modelers, who use it to create a large number of architectonic terracottas: likewise, in the guise of a human-headed bull or of a simple mask, he regularly appears in the imagery of funerary paintings (for instance, the Tomb of the Bulls at Tarquinia) or on ceramics.
The decoration of the two metopes is respectively composed of a mermaid holding leafy branches in her hands and, on the reverse face, of a winged young man, running with long strides to the left of the viewer; he is surrounded by high thin bushes with long lanceolate leaves. In Greek mythology, sirens (hybrid beings with the body of a bird and the head of a woman) are the daughters of the river god Achelous and of a Muse (Melpomene or Terpsichore). Already mentioned in the Odyssey (the sailors navigating by the coast of their island were charmed by their song and ended up crashing on the rocks; only Ulysses resisted their charms, thus causing their suicide), sirens turned, after their death, into deities of the afterlife, where they sang for the Blessed in the Fortunate Isles. In Etruria and on vases likely intended for the funerary sphere, the siren is certainly not related to the myth of Ulysses, and must rather be interpreted as a being passing through: thanks to their wings, they symbolize the moment of the transition between the world of the living and the dead.
The young winged runner is an enigmatic figure, difficult to interpret in detail: his appearance clearly evokes the Greek god Hermes in his quality as a psychopomp (who accompanies the soul of the deceased to the afterlife), but the iconographic differences are too important to allow us to identify him with this figure. As for the siren, his attitude and the presence of wings show a connection with the funerary sphere and the moment of the passage of the soul to the afterlife. This krater has not been attributed yet to a specific workshop: its paintings seem rather distinct from those of the Micali Painter and of his world (he was probably active at Vulci), but show many similarities with the vessels of the La Tolfa group (La Tolfa is a city north of Rome, situated between Cerveteri and Tarquinia) without enabling us to attribute it to this group, the morphological repertory of which almost exclusively consists of amphorae and whose production center seems to be at Cerveteri. In spite of its seemingly banal appearance, this vase is an unusual object, in terms of form as well as style or iconography, since it mixes a series of elements which would deserve greater and more detailed reflection.
On Etruscan black-figure pottery:
MARTELLI M. (ed.), La ceramica etrusca, La pittura vascolare, Novara, 1987, pp. 31-42, 297-312.
RIZZO M. A. (ed.), Un artista etrusco e il suo mondo: il pittore de Micali, Rome, 1987.
ZILVERBERG M., The La Tolfa Painter: Fat or thin?, in Entousiasmos, Essays on Greek and related Pottery presented to J.M. Hemelrijk, Amsterdam, 1986, pp. 49 ff.